China's sole aircraft carrier to lead Pacific drills for first time

A live-fire drill using an aircraft carrier is seen carried out in the Bohai sea, China, on Dec 14, 2016.
A live-fire drill using an aircraft carrier is seen carried out in the Bohai sea, China, on Dec 14, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) – China’s navy plans a training exercise in the Pacific that would include for the first time its sole aircraft carrier, state media reported – a move likely to ratchet up regional tensions.  

The duration of the drill and the route of the flotilla were not known. But the Soviet-made carrier is based in the northeastern city of Dalian, suggesting the fleet would enter the Pacific through a disputed island chain between Taiwan and Japan.  

“A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, headed towards the West Pacific on Saturday (Dec 24) for scheduled blue-water training,” Xinhua said Saturday, citing China’s navy spokesperson Liang Yang.  

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday it had been monitoring the drills closely as the Liaoning went through the Miyako Strait, a body of water between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, heading into the Pacific.

It said it was monitoring whether the aircraft carrier would continue into the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines, on its return.

Japan’s Defence Ministry confirmed eight Chinese vessels, including the carrier and three destroyers, had been spotted by one of its ships in the central part of the East China Sea on Saturday afternoon.  

In recent days the Liaoning has been involved in exercises in the Yellow Sea, with J-15 fighter jets taking off from it and conducting air refuelling and combat drills, Xinhua said.  Earlier in the month the Liaoning led large-scale exercises in the Bohai Sea that included live ammunition for the first time.  

Tokyo controls the string of uninhabited islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China that are also claimed by Beijing and Taipei.  

The Chinese navy drills are seen as a show of strength by Beijing at a time of rising tensions with Taiwan and the United States following a protocol-breaking telephone conversation between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US President-elect Donald Trump.

China views Taiwan as a renegade province and fiercely opposes diplomatic recognition of it as a country.  

Last Tuesday the Chinese navy returned a US underwater probe it had seized in the South China Sea, where competing territorial claims have heightened tensions in the region.

The Liaoning carrier has participated in previous military exercises, including some in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practiced for decades.  

Last December, the defence ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier, but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier programme is a state secret.  

Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.  

China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts believe will be the deployment of domestically built carriers by 2020.